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I recently discovered some heaters based on "bio fuel" (ethanol).

Many products seem to be decorative and often present a modern design.

Some ethanol burners can be used in empty fireplaces and can deliver some moderate heating power.

It seems also that the emissions are very low, and there's usually no need for using a chimney.

Do you think that a solution based on ethanol can be used as a main heating source for a flat?

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3 Answers 3

Anything that burns will provide some heat, it will also provide some exhaust.

At today's prices you can save a dollar per gallon by using ethanol over home heating oil. The problem is that you really shouldn't care about price per gallon, you should care about price per amount of energy released.

Heating oil is about 141 Mega-Joules per gallon. Ethanol is about 70 Mega-Joules per gallon.

At $3.60 / gallon for heating oil, it is a bargain compared to $2.72 for ethanol, because you would need to buy two gallons to equal the amount of theoretical heat available in one gallon of heating oil.

 $3.60 for ~141 MegaJoules of heating oil (1 gallon) 
 $5.44 for ~139 MegaJoules of ethanol (2 gallons)

It is not a fuel with a high energy capacity, so you'll need a lot of it. Cheap sources are not very pure, and are poisoned (to prevent sales on the alcohol market) that means that "burns cleanly" isn't going to apply unless you want even more expensive forms of ethanol.

Partial by-products found naturally in ethanol combustion are very damaging to certain plastics (and are generally acidic), making installation costs higher (or hiding those costs in future repair bills).

It makes sense in some places, but in home heating it's not a winning choice unless other factors increase the costs of more mundane solutions.

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My calculations are approximate, and I could have made a mistake, but by all means, check them for yourself! –  Edwin Buck Sep 28 '12 at 17:09
A lot of less reputable bio-fuel advocates hide costs in promotion of their favorites. For example, I knew of one person who told of the virtues of used french-fry oil. The only problem is that he was basically stealing it, thinking "it's free" when in reality it is sold back to reprocessing plants. If he paid for his own oil at market prices for used french fry oil, it would have been very expensive. –  Edwin Buck Sep 28 '12 at 17:12

This is a great article. I took a semester off of college two semesters ago to try to find all the right resources to make this venture possible. But, as Edwin ran the numbers, which I would agree are pretty accurate considering the price fluctuations, it is hard to make money trying to sell ethanol as a means of heat for buildings.

After traveling to SP, Brazil and negotiating prices with E85 producers the cost per gallon/liter is too high. Plus the E85 tariff the US places on sugar cane ethanol from Brazil and the boiler system every building would have to replace.

One suggestion would be to find a different means of bio-fuel. Keep in mind that people don't want to replace what they already have for something that isn't going to save them money or fuel less at twice the cost, granted it is better for the environment. Let's face it, it all comes down the impact it has on our wallets.

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Biofuel isn't necessarily better for the environment. It can lead to monoculture and, in the case of Brazil, rain forest deforestation. –  DA01 Oct 31 '12 at 8:11
Note that my prices are for E85, but my energy calculations are for E100. I was trying to give the maximum benefit of a doubt, but the numbers really don't support the effort. True prices are worse than I published. –  Edwin Buck Nov 13 '12 at 17:24

It's an interesting idea. Conceivably, any combustible fuel could be used for home heating. In practice, the dominant fuels for home heating are natural gas (methane), propane gas, home heating oil, and electricity. Wood stoves and built-in heaters powered by fuels such as kerosene are also available, but typically used as accessory heat or used in locations where other fuels are unavailable.

After some googling, it doesn't look like ethanol-fueled home furnaces or boilers are mass-produced. I can imagine a couple of reasons for this:

  1. People want a cheap, readily available fuel source for home heating. Until there are delivery services or pipelines for a fuel, it will be inconvenient to use.
  2. Ethanol is inefficient for large-scale heating use. The production of ethanol involves distillation which requires heat; it might be more efficient to simply use that fuel to produce the heat you need than to produce and then consume ethhanol.

There may be other reasons as well. Overall, it looks like if you want to use ethanol for built-in whole-house heating, you will be undertaking an unusual experiment. If you have a low cost source of ethanol, perhaps you can achieve most of your heating needs using portable ethanol burners. However, if you want to be able to sell your flat, it would be wiser to invest in a more mainstream heating system for whole-house heat.

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The flat at the moment has only electricity as a main source.. The current radiators seem to be expensive and not really "smart".. I am thinking of using heated floors + ethanol. –  Rdpi Sep 28 '12 at 15:46
A problem with ethanol are the running costs. In the UK I am able to find many different burners, but the "fuel" isn't really cheap (on long term) –  Rdpi Sep 28 '12 at 15:46

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